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Anthony Lanzilote/Chalkbeat

Lawmakers lower income limit for Tennessee vouchers eligibility

Fewer students from middle-income families would qualify for vouchers under an amended bill now working its way through the Tennessee legislature.

While Gov. Bill Lee’s initial proposal would have allowed families of four earning up to $93,000 a year to participate in the education savings account program, lawmakers last week revised the eligibility guidelines significantly. It now limits eligible households to those with an annual income that isn’t more than double what’s needed to qualify for free lunch under federal guidelines.

That’s about $65,000 annually for a family of four.

Gov. Bill Lee had campaigned on giving more educational choices to low-income families in districts with failing schools. But the original income cap was criticized for being well above what’s considered low-income in Tennessee.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The saving accounts, a form of vouchers, would allow parents to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online classes, and other educational services using taxpayer funds. In the program’s first year, the state would give out 5,000 vouchers, worth an average of $7,300 each. Families who meet the income guidelines also must be zoned for a district with three or more schools performing in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

“I want to take Gov. Lee at his word that he wants to help low-income students who are attending an underperforming school,” Sen. Jeff Yarbro of Nashville, who chairs the legislature’s outnumbered Democratic caucus and opposes the bill, said after the first votes affirming the bill.

To do that, the eligibility requirements need to be narrowed further, said Jenny Hill, a school board member in Hamilton County, who opposes the bill, noting, “I’m very pleased that we’ve taken it down. I’d like to see it come all the way down to the qualifying income to free lunch.”

That would be about $33,000 annually for a family of four.

From Hill’s observations at Capitol Hill, where she testified against the proposal last week, she expects the bill to pass. But she is hoping lawmakers will “pass a piece of legislation that will benefit the students that the governor has publicized he wants to help.”

She added: “The tighter we can get that income qualifier, the more likely it will benefit students living in poverty.”

But an income threshold that is too low could have unintended consequences, said Gillum Ferguson, the spokesperson for Tennessee Federation for Children, a pro-voucher group that once had U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on its national board.

“If you set the ceiling so low that when you’re actually giving these ESAs to people, you don’t want to provide a disincentive to take that raise at work,” he said, adding school lunch measures may not be the best metric to determine eligibility.

Some students from moderate-income families are “also stuck in that school and they can’t move like a wealthier family could.”

Below is a comparison of income caps for the education savings account bill.